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Patriot Act Politics | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Patriot Act Politics

Rarely has the disconnect between the faith of the American people in the bedrock principle that it is possible to be safe and free and the failure of faith on the part of their elected leaders been more evident than in recent days.

There is no question that, outside of Washington, concern runs deep about the assaults on basic liberties contained in the Patriot Act. Eight state legislative chambers – in Alaska, California, Colorado Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Montana and Vermont -- and 397 local government bodies in communities large and small nationwide have passed resolutions urging Congress to fix the act so that Constitutional protections are not sacrificed in pursuit of the false promise of domestic security.

Americans understand and respect Benjamin Franklin's warning that: "Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both."

They also understand and respect U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold's calculation that, with minor changes, the Patriot Act could have preserved "both the national security needs of this country and the rights and freedoms of its citizens."

As the Wisconsin Democrat battled to fix the Patriot Act by eliminating unconstitutional provisions, Feingold reminded the Congress that, "The negative reaction to the Patriot Act has been overwhelming. Over 400 state and local government bodies passed resolutions pleading with Congress to change the law. Citizens have signed petitions, library associations and campus groups have organized to petition the Congress to act, numerous editorials have been written urging Congress not to reauthorize the law without adequate protections for civil liberties. These things occurred because Americans across the country recognize that the Patriot Act includes provisions that pose a threat to their privacy and liberty -- values that are at the very core of what this country represents, of who we are as a people."

Yet, when the Senate and House had an opportunity to make necessary and possible reforms to the act – by protecting the rights of innocent Americans against abuses by government agencies using the act's provisions allowing for subpoena-like "national security letters" and the seizure of library, medical and business records – both chambers chose instead to acquiesce to the Bush administration's demand that the measure be reauthorized without meaningful changes in its content and character.

In the Senate last week, only nine senators -- eight Democrats and Vermont Independent Jim Jeffords -- joined Feingold in holding out for a Patriot Act that preserves basic freedoms and national security. Disappointingly, a number of usual stalwarts for civil liberties, such as Massachusetts Democrat Ted Kennedy, sided with the administration, as did Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, and New York Democrat Hillary Clinton. (Feingold, who is getting more serious about seeking the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, would have plenty to debate with Clinton, who is generally seen as the frontrunner for the party's nod.)

In the House, this week's final vote for reauthorization of the act in the form favored by the White House was 280-138. The 138 foes of reauthorization included 124 Democrats, 13 Republicans and Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders -- the chamber's most ardent champion of fixing the Patriot Act.

Unfortunately, while veteran Republicans such as Ohio's Mike Oxley and Alaska's Don Young could bring themselves to vote against reauthorization, some of the key Democrats in the House could not. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, voted "no," but Assistant Minority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Rahm Emanuel, D-Illinois, sided with the White House.

Feingold says the fight will continue, and he may have some new allies in the Senate after November. In addition to Sanders, who is running as an independent for Vermont's open Senate seat and leads in every poll, Representative Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who is challenging Republican Mike DeWine, voted against reauthorization. On the other hand, Representative Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, who is seeking an open Senate seat, voted with the administration. Cardin faces a number of primary challengers for the Maryland Democratic nomination, including former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, who argues that, "Most of all, in our fight against the threat of terror, we must not surrender our essential liberties in the name of preserving liberty."

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